Writer in Residence

The Male Default in Children's Literature - What It Is and Why It Matters

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Bechdel Test for movies.  A film that passes the Bechdel Test must have at least one scene in which two female characters are talking to each other – and not about a man. About half of mainstream movies fail this test. 

So what about books? Would children’s books, overall, pass the equivalent of a Bechdel Test for kidlit?

I’m not about to take on this research study myself. But I can tell you that gender issues are still very much in play in the world of kidlit. Despite the fact that most children’s authors are female, most children’s book editors are female, and most children’s book buyers (teachers, librarians) are female, the books that tend to get the most press, the biggest deals, the best placement in stores, the most awards, and the most author visits/festival invites, tend to be written by men. (https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2014/0411/Even-in-children-s-lit-do-male-authors-gain-more-attention-than-female)

In addition, for the last one hundred years, most of the subjects of books were male. The stats on this have barely budged since the 1990s. (Read about the research/evidence at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110503151607.htm, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/21/childrens-books-sexism-monster-in-your-kids-book-is-male. https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2019/03/gender-books) .

Gender bias is most noticeable in the field of biography. Want to read about a female scientist who did amazing things? For years, there was Marie Curie, or….Marie Curie. The eternal and near exclusive emphasis on male subjects was enough to make this grown woman cry. 

A recent push to correct this imbalance - much of it from authors like me –has had impressive results. Now, you can read about Katherine Johnson (Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13), Mary Shelley (Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein), Zheng Yi Sao (Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao) and dozens of other accomplished women.

But what about picture books? Is the fluffy bunny or the kid with a plan male or female?

Most often, the protagonist of a children’s book will be male. (And white, but that’s another post.) And when the gender isn’t obvious or specified, we still view it as male. This habit of mind is called “the gender default,” and it’s something even the most ardent feminist, like me, can fall victim to.

Consider my bestselling Christmas book, A Porcupine in a Pine Tree, illustrated by Werner Zimmermann. When I wrote this book, I behaved like a typical North American and made that porcupine male. In my mind, anyway – there’s nothing on the page to indicate gender. But that porcupine was so clearly male in my mind I privately named him “Quilliam.” 

Fast forward to a more recent book, Sloth at the Zoom. When I wrote that, the two main characters, a sloth and snail, were also, by default, male. I didn’t think about this – it just was normal and natural to see even my own characters as conforming to the familiar conventions and stereotypes.

But then my brilliant and talented editor, Jennifer McKinnon, pointed out what I’d done. I was floored. I couldn’t believe I had been so blind to the gender discrimination in my own work! In a book I had written about myself, I had made the main characters both “he.” Talk about girls and women being erased from the story (see: women’s biography).

Thanks to Jennifer’s astute observation, Sloth became “she,” while Snail remained “he.” And I now think long and hard about pronouns before I put a character on paper.  

I wondered, though, how I could have been so blind, and therefore spent a lot of time looking for the reason. One reason, I realized, was that gender bias is baked into our language. Consider these common phrases:


  • His and Hers
  • Boys and Girls
  • Men and Women
  • Men, Women and Children
  • He or She

You might notice that the male sex comes first. Literally.
The English language, by default, gives precedence to maleness. Sure, we have mostly stopped using the male pronoun “he” to represent both genders. But “he or she” – with the ladyword trailing along like an unwanted bag of oats – isn’t much better.

Word usage matters. It conditions us without our even being aware of it. (Say “she or he” or “hers and his” – doesn’t it make you squirm??)

In children’s books, the male default has the greatest impact. It sets a biased stage for kids, telling them what the world is supposed to look like. Without them – or us -  even noticing it.

So what to do? Thankfully, a lot of the hard work in correcting the gender imbalance in books is already happening. (I’m proud of my own role, here!)

The rest of the work happens simply by becoming aware of the gender default in kidlit. And now that you are, go forth and read!


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Buy the Book

Pirate Queen

The most powerful pirate in history was a woman who was born into poverty in Guangzhou, China, in the late 1700s. When pirates attacked her town and the captain took a liking to her, she saw a way out. Zheng Yi Sao agreed to marry him only if she got an equal share of his business. When her husband died six years later, she took command of the fleet.

Over the next decade, the pirate queen built a fleet of over 1,800 ships and 70,000 men. On land and sea, Zheng Yi Sao’s power rivaled the emperor himself. Time and again, her ships triumphed over the emperor’s ships.

When she was ready to retire, Zheng Yi Sao surrendered — on her own terms, of course. Even though there was a price on her head, she was able to negotiate her freedom, living in peace and prosperity for the rest of her days.

Zheng Yi Sao’s powerful story is told in lyrical prose by award-winning author Helaine Becker. Liz Wong’s colorful, engaging illustrations illuminate this inspiring woman in history.

An author’s note provides historical context and outlines the challenges of researching a figure about whom little is known.